Monday, July 03, 2006

"THE BEAUTY AND POWER OF MOTHER NATURE: Torres del Paine National Park" Jeff Phillips

The Beauty and Power of Mother Nature: Torres del Paine National Park

Torres del Paine National Park is a very special land, a world unto itself, an enchanted and mystically beautiful place of amazing geology and natural energy; huge glaciers, azure lakes, and towering granite pinnacles (the “torres”) express the creativity of Mother Earth as powerfully as any place I have ever been.

For years I had seen photos of Torres del Paine, most specifically, the view that you get of the “torres” and the glacial lake (Ventisquero Torres) just below, which you get to after you climb the boulder field above the Torres campamento, (you’ve probably seen photos taken from here in travel magazines) and simultaneously marvelled at the stunning natural beauty and at how far away and impossible for me ever to get there it seemed to be.

But through the grace of the Great Spirit, I made it. Let me tell you about it now.

After I had been at Marcelo’s place a couple days the first time I was there, I decided to make a trip down south while the summery weather was holding out. This was early April, when usually, I was told, that it’s already started raining in Santiago. But I had day after day of warm sunny weather…quite beautiful until mid-afternoon when the smog cloud rose to where we were.

I booked a reservation on the Navimag, a cruise that sails between Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales, taking about three days to cover the distance. My first Tur-bus ride was from Santiago to Puerto Montt (and it was on this ride that I met Jon and Maria, my friends who I am now staying with in Puerto Varas).

I had timed the bus-ride to put me into Puerto Montt just a few hours before the Navimag was due to sail, but as it turned out, departure had been postponed until the next day, so I had to line up somewhere to spend the night.

I pulled out my trusty Footprint™ and saw that one of the most highly recommended backpackers was a place called Perla’s. The “English spoken” note was meaning more and more to me. I took a cab from the bus-station, and soon I was there. It looked just like somebody’s house…which is exactly what it was! Except for the orange VW van in front, with a flat tire, and a smalls sign that said “Perla’s” on the wall by the door, it was indistinguishable from the other houses on the block.

Inside, however, it was quite friendly. A nice, homey kind of atmosphere, nothing fancy; it was the home of Perla and her partner, whose name I never caught because he spoke no English and pretty much sat in the corner of the kitchen by the wood-stove all the time.

Whenever I find that I have to stay in a back-packer or hostel, my usual strategy is to get a room entirely by myself. Some people don’t seem to mind snoring, lights being turned on and/or mobile phone conversations in the middle of the night…but I do. Maybe I’m just old-school or weird maybe? But if I’m shelling out money for a place to sleep, I want to get some sleep!

Perla was pretty nice, but she didn’t have any single rooms, so I went into a double room. There was someone else already in there, but I didn’t care…it was just for one night.

But it turned out to be this cool “American” guy from Seattle named John. And who would have thought that I would suddenly find myself in the presence of someone who was a lawyer, a molecular biologist, and Olympic pole-vaulter! [haha! I must mention here that this last sentence is riddled with no, not hyperbole, but plain old equine fecal matter, i.e., horse-shit! John will no doubt be laughing as he reads this…aren’t you DOCTOR BALLSACH??? See, this is all part of an on-going narrative, the personal mythology I was creating for John during our two weeks of travelling and tramping together. More on this as it developed; I wanted to point out that throughout this entire document I have taken NO piss, nor anyone’s “mickey”, nor have I misrepresented or exaggerated anything…no, not even any of the stuff from Marcelo’s cult-on-the-hill. I wanted the truth to speak for itself, for, in this case indeed the truth was stranger than anything I could have made up!]

OK, so John is not a molecular biologist, nor is he an Olympic pole-vaulter…but he looks like one. He’s not even a lawyer In fact, now that I think about it, I can’t remember what he did in Seattle! Oh yeah, some kind of telemarketing thing for a company that collected money for handicapped children? In that ballpark, anyway.

Anyway, we went cruising through Puerto Montt, looking for some trekking gear, learning about South American culture and trying to communicate with people whose English was no better than our Espanol! He hadn’t been in South America much longer than I had, if that long.

The next day we went over to Angelmo, the suburb where the port is located, and boarded the Navimag, along with several dozen other travellers. Riding aboard the Navimag was a trip unto itself; there were lots of really cool people and we pretty much had a blast…except for the one night when many people were sea-sick!

I highly recommend taking the Navimag from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales if you ever make it to Chile. Because it was late in the season, we were on the smaller of their two boats; but this one was still probably at least 100 meters long or more.

It was a very good-vibe scene; the people working on the boat were very friendly, and Maria, our tour guide, was very cool. She was actually Argentinian (an artist and gym teacher for school kids in Buenos Aires in the off-season, I later learned). Her English was quite good, and her Espanol was Argentinian, and this more easily understood by non-Chilean Spanish speakers. I figured this is why she had this job…that and the fact that she was a pretty hot babe, probably 40-ish, quite pretty, with a very interesting smile and a very tight, athletic physique. She seemed very capable of leadership under any adverse circumstances, and could well have been capable of ripping a new ass-hole on any drunken bloke that got out of hand! I liked her immensely, and gave her not only a nice painted rock but also a pendant and some cd’s of music, too. She gave me this cool Argentinian hat-thing, that just covers my ears…it has indeed come in very handy! But the main thing I remember about Maria is her voice; every morning around 7:00am the announcements began, always in Espanol followed by English, and continued throughout the day, not only for meal times but also for an assortment of films, both educational and entertaining. Both John and I continued to hear echoes of her voice long after we left the Navimag.

We passed through some awesomely beautiful landscapes; the route took us through the extremely complex archipelago of southern Chile, at times less than 100 meters from the rocky outcroppings! We had pretty good weather, with blue skies and sun most of the time. It was generally fairly windy, and cool to cold, but not actually freezing.

I met many really cool people, some of whom I am keeping in touch with; many of these were “Americans, but allow me to digress…

On what it means to be “American”… For years I’ve been making the point that even though people from the United States correctly refer to themselves as “Americans,” they aren’t the only ones. People from Canada are “Americans” as much as anyone…although there’s a Canadian chick who emigrated to New Zealand, who works in the immigration office in Wellington who would beg to differ. Mexicans are “Americans”, just as people from Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama or Guatemala are, too.

The kiwi immigration secretary categorically denied that she was “American” in any way, shape or form. But she was very wrong. In general, too, but specifically on this! I explained to her, as I do to anyone who questions me, that it’s very simple: if you go by the name “North America” for the continent that underlies the countries calling themselves Canada, Mexico, and the United States, then…ipso facto, obviously, and in fact by pure logic you must necessarily be “American.” If not, then of what possible use are names that don’t mean what they say. (I won’t digress on the pervasiveness of “Orwellian double-speak” from the sphinc…I mean, lips of technocrats and politicians…but I could, and have done so elsewhere. Technically, anyone from either North, Central or South America is “American.”

I know, I know, it depends on how you want to define the term. Words and language in general are like this…we have “denotations” and “connotations”, we have linguistic relativity, we have colloquialisms and we have slang. I understand all this. It’s just that I’m a stickler for obvious logic…so I always insist that Canadians are “Americans”, too, whether they like it…or G. W. Bush…or not! And even though “American” often equates with “over-weight credit-card bearing tourists with loud voices and too much money, who have no world-view.”

As I understand it, North America and South America are named after Amerigo Vespuccis, who was I believe an Italian explorer or navigator who “discovered” the continents which now bear a version of his name. “Discovered” is another one of those words that could use a few pages of elucidation. For example, “discovery” implies that something was completely unknown before it was discovered. As for the indigenous people of the “Americas”, did they know their land had not yet been discovered? Were they hanging on a thread, living for tens of millennia just waiting for a wayward sea-farer to come along and say “Land ho! I hereby discover you…and now you exist!” Verily, I think not.

Back to the story. Canadians may not want to be referred to as “Americans” but the people in Chile are proud of the truth…they are claiming the name and I applaud them heartily! I was having a beer in Puerto Natales one night and this Chilean dude suggested that I try a certain kind of beer. I got one, and he asks me where I’m from. Responding casually, and like a normal person…see, quite often I reply to this question with “the Andromeda galaxy.” This may be true for all I know…I said “From America…” Before I could continue he said matter of factly, “I, too, am American.” I immediately started laughing and congratulated him on saying what I always say…it was a cool connection and I was happy to meet a like-minded person.

I’ve yet to come up with an accurate “nick-name” for people who are citizens of the United States of America. “Sleep-walkers” comes to mind…but what has come to mind is “turtle island.”

I learned years ago that this is what North America was called by many different indigenous peoples there, usually in their creation mythologies. I love turtles, and I like the idea of the land where I grew up being part of a turtle’s back!

So saying I am from “turtle island” does not differentiate me from Canadian-Americans and Mexican-Americans, although it does differentiate me from South Americans. I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that in indigenous South American mythologies, their land was born upon the back of a giant huemul!

In Spanish “turtle island” translates as “isla tortuga.” These days this is where I am saying I am from…unless of course I mention the Andromeda Galaxy, sometimes simply by pointing to where it is in the sky.

On the Navimag, I met “isla tortugans” from the United States mainly, maybe a couple Canadians. Hanging out with all these guys surrounded me with the most “American” (it’s hard to eliminate that word and what it commonly means) accents I’d been around since leaving there in 2000. It was a blast. I found myself explaining Kiwi and Aussie folk-lore and lingo at length. And I spoke with many of them about what’s happening there now…you know, all the weird stuff! “You mean to say that those planes weren’t hijacked by Osama ben Laden’s Arab terrorists with box-cutters? What do you mean, the World Trade Centers were brought down with explosives? Bush’s grandfather financed Hitler…COME ON!”

Alright, they weren’t that dumb…actually pretty much everyone was very aware to some degree of the imperial fuckery at hand. One guy from Boulder, Colorado (where I lived or was based all through the 90’s), when I asked him what he thought of “dubya” replied simply that he should have been shot a long time ago. Yo…time to get the lead out, eh?

But the coolest (sorry Dr. Ballsach…I mean, John!) “Yank”…HEY THERE YOU GO…that’s what Australians and New Zealanders call people from the United States…YANKS! It’s supposed to be short for “Yankee”, as in “doodle dandee” (I don’t mind being called a “yank” but I sure ain’t no doodle fucking dandee) [note: “yank” can also be a verb, as in “don’t yank on my pecker like that honey…it makes my sphincter pucker up!” Where I come from, “liquor” is a verb as well.]…the coolest yankee isla tortugan [“yit”] had to be this really tall Alaskan chick named Katie. (Dr. Chestnut, you must agree that, even with your outstanding credentials AND the fact that you, of course, actually pioneered some of the earliest research in cryogenics…see, this is how it worked…you must agree that Katie is at least a little cooler than you, because she is a chick who has already hitch-hiked in Chile…before me! Even you, the illustrious J. Dimitri Ballsach, have yet to experience this direct encounter with the friendly unknown!]

Katie was way cool. I filmed her talking for maybe 20 minutes about what she does in Alaska…she’s a tour guide. Being from Alaska, she’s also impervious to cold, as she was standing there comfortably talking to me with no gloves on yet my hands were getting stiff from the wind-chill. She was also wearing something that resembled a pastel tablecloth fastened with a safety-pin, as a dress! I kept hoping it would fall off! She had some long-ass legs under there, as she’s five foot eleven!

We talked about the aurora borealis, the huge vegetables that can be grown in the short but intense Alaskan summers, and the “Matanuskan thunderfuck” weed that comes out of there.

She said she would take me on a tour if I came to Alaska, and I might take her up on it, as Alaska is one of three states that I have not hitch-hiked in nor even visited. I think she is still in South America now, but I know that when she returns to the U.S. she was going to be doing a three-week rafting trip through the Grand Canyon.

Hello Katie wherever you are!

OK…the scenery you see from the Navimag is absolutely amazing. A lot of it reminded me of Newfoundland and New Zealand; at times I thought of Norway, although I’ve never been there. Quite a few times I wished I had an ocean kayak and that they would just drop me off for a few days to go ashore and explore.

We did get to go ashore for an hour at Puerto Eden, a small indigenous community that has no cars or roads…only wooden walk-ways. This is where the last remaining Kaweskar peoples live. It was nice there…but their post-cards were very expensive.

Early on the third day we arrived in Puerto Natales. Luckily I had made a reservation at what was supposed to be one of the best back-packers there, Patagonia Adventure, and had a double room waiting. John was going to share it with me. But being Mr. Nice Guy and all, I gave it up to this British couple so they could be alone together, and went into the dorm. In the middle of the night I was awakened by…guess what? Someone snoring…can you believe it! So I went and crashed on the floor of the main room, but it was cool as I got up a like 5 a.m. to finish packing for Torres del Paines.

Patagonia Adventure is run by Karin and Pablo (who by chance are friends with Jon and Maria!) and is a very nice place…warm, friendly, nice art…except for one thing: there is no kitchen you can use…even though my “trusty” Footprint™ says it has one! There is a kitchen, but it’s Karin and Pablos’s, as they live out back. There is a little café that they added on recently that’s nice and all…but it’s no substitute for a place where you can make a cup of coffee, cook your own dinner, keep stuff in a fridge, or just sit and hang out without having to spend any $.

It was kind of a let-down, because all the guide-books expressly say that this place has a kitchen. I mean, it does…you just can’t use it! I think they used to let people use theirs, but then stopped probably because ass-holes repeatedly abused it and left dirty dishes and stole other people’s food or the knives and stuff.

Really, a back-packer with no kitchen isn’t really a back-packer at all, it’s a hotel. Right? But hotel’s don’t have dorm rooms, do they? So what is it, then…a hot-packer?

As nice as Karin and Pablo are, it’s a hard call to recommend that anyone stay there. Everything else is so cool that it almost compensates for having no kitchen…but I don’t know! I guess most people are there just for one night anyway, on their way to Torres del Paine. For this it’s quite cool. I don’t know about longer stays, unless you want to eat out all the time…or in their strategically-located café…which, now that I think about it, is located in what may have been the guest kitchen, and was actually a blatantly money-driven decision. I later learned that Karin and Pablo are trying to get the money together to buy their building; good on them…but hey guys…there are more legitimate ways of increasing your income than replacing your guest kitchen with a café.

Puerto Natales is a nice little town, much smaller than Puerto Montt, and much further south. The down-town part is quite touristy, with all kinds of outdoor shops, restaurants, tour offices and assorted hotels, hostels and back-packers. I noticed that the church on the square in town had a Hopi cross on it. Again, this was at the end of the season…in fact, that night the pub (run by a British guy called “Slowly”!) was having an “end of the season” party…we went and it was great…about two to one chicks to guys, good vibes and original reggae music…BUT we were off to Torres del Paines very early the next morning so we left before midnight.

Pretty much everyone at Patagonia Adventure that night was going to Torres del Paines the next morning. I was up before everyone else, due to having avoided the snorer. After our “continental breakfast”, which was included with the room, we all boarded the bus which took us to the entrance to the park, about three hours away.

The morning was absolutely clear and chilly but not frigid. As we approached the park the torres and surrounding mountains became visible…a truly awe-inspiring and even breath-taking vision of surreal beauty. We stopped by Laguna Amarga, which gave us a more or less perfect reflection of the torres. Around its edges the lake appeared to be frozen, but one of the guys must have tasted it since he yelled out “It’s salty!” I gathered a film can of sand and we were off.

They let us off (in Australia, this is what they do to nuclear bombs…they don’t “detonate” them, they “let them off”) at Hosteria Las Torres, where the hiking trails begin. The day was beautiful, even warm, no wind. My pack was way heavier than anyone else’s, as I was packing probably around 32 kilos (around 70 lbs), including my cameras. I was bringing stuff like multiple liters of fruit juice…gotta have my juice! And we were off.

John and I were almost the last to leave. It was great, as I really enjoy walking alone; not that I don’t mind having some human company, but I find that most people, even when they are out in nature in a totally spiritually uplifting and peaceful place, cannot help but talk really loud all the time. This is the main thing that bugs me about the excessive human presence in remote wilderness places…it’s not the actual presence of the humans, it’s how they act there. They seem to have little or no awareness of where they are. These same people wouldn’t talk, yell or laugh in church, would they? They wouldn’t leave urine-soaked toilet paper on the pew in church would they? So why act like that in goddess’s REAL church???

John didn’t have nearly the weight I had, so he was off like a race-horse. This was fine with me. The first two or three kilometres were fine; it was across more or less level terrain. But then the big up-hill gradient started.

Now, I’m in pretty damn good physical condition, for anyone, regardless of their age. I am 49 (that’s Earth years!) and everything on me works as good as or better than it ever did! Just ask my girlfriends (not that there’s all that many, but they are typically in their late teens or early twenties…it’s who they are that I love, not how “old” they are!) I mean, I’m not an Olympic level athlete, like Dimitri Chestnut, but I’ve kept myself in shape ever since high-school. I get lots of exercise, always carry a relatively heavy load, mostly photographic gear, eat a nutritious and balanced diet, and I have never smoked cigarettes. I mean, I’ve also never injected nitric acid or snorted plutonium dust…to me, smoking cigarettes is akin to these…not something that any sane person would do voluntarily!

But after a kilometre or two of this big up-grade, I began to realize just how heavy my pack was. VERY fucking heavy!!!!! John waited for me to catch up. Carrying all this weight was kicking my ass, so I decided to put a few things inside a rubbish bag and nest it up in the limbs of a small tree; then I could get it when we came back down. This was some juice, cheese and of course my beloved buttah. We speculated on who or what might get to it before we came back…condors, pumas, people.

The route we were trekking is called the “w”, because it is roughly that shape on a map. The “w” takes you to most of the really spectacular landscapes, and is typically done in three to five days. There is also the circuit trek, which goes all the way around the park; they say seven to ten days for this.

On the “w” there are several refugios, or what in New Zealand would be called “huts.” I remember when I first came to New Zealand, we were doing a tramp up onto the Pinnacles, near Thames, on the North Island. We were told there was a “hut” there we could stay in over-night if we wished. Being fresh from “isla tortuga”, the word “hut” in my mind conjured up images of a little shack…loose boards, maybe a door, maybe not…no glass on the windows, for sure, maybe a dirt floor or saw-dust. When we get there I see this building that looks more like a small ski lodge. I go “So where’s the hut? This is obviously a ski lodge.” But no, this was the “hut.” An almost brand new building, with three-story towers, skylights, a very clean and shiny kitchen with stainless steel sinks, and…get this…a sign asking you to please remove your shoes before entering!

So now I knew. The refugios here are very much like the New Zealand “huts” crossed with a backpacker. There were two or three that were still open this time of year. They are spaced so that you can easily do the “w” without having to carry a tent if you want. I, on the other hand, brought my practically brand new Mountain Hardware Trango 2 four-season tent, which I bought in Auckland last year specifically with South America in mind. It’s a little heavy, weighing in at around 4 kg’s…but it’s free-standing and has superlative top-loading support, supposedly being able to withstand a meter of snow on top of you! It’s got heaps of room for two people, and you could have three people shoulder to shoulder if you wanted. I had planned to sleep in my tent every night, and told John he could join me, saving him the expense and weight of renting a tent.

Finally I arrive at the Torres camp-site, completely knackered. “Munted”, in New Zealand; “rooted”, in Australia; “fucked”, in “isla tortuga.” I was hammered. The last kilometre or two I felt like my legs just wouldn’t pick up any more. But I made it, just before dark. John said if I wasn’t there by dark he was going to come looking for me, which to me was a positive sign of trail solidarity.

He had found us a nice spot by a little stream, and I set up the tent. The whole camp-ground is within a very wonderful lenga (beech) forest…quite enchanted. It was at this moment that I truly found myself in the wilds of South America. Words can in no way express the profound magic of being there; feeling the spirit of a place is just like experiencing the uniqueness of a new person you meet…a complex yet ineffable “something” that you feel…yet very difficult to describe. You feel it with your entire being. I felt like I was being loved by the land.

I was really feeling the spirit of Torres del Paines, of Patagonia, of the Andes, of South America. Of the Earth, here and now. Very peaceful, very welcoming. Being here reminded me of being in Colorado somewhat, but also of being in New Zealand; similar but neither. I felt very much at home.

We made the decision to slow down and stay two nights at this place. Pretty much everyone else was moving on, following the prescribed schedule. I’m not like that. I like to be in my own time-frame. It’s like your own inner vibrations determine your personal reality; you can be in the middle of noise and confusion…as is more than likely to be the case these daze…yet remain apart from it in the core of your being. But it’s a two-way street; you don’t want to be cut off or isolated from what’s important, you don’t want to become unaware or insensitive. It’s just that if you are in fact open and sensitive, then you actually feel the vibrations of those around you, for better or worse.

Thoreau, in Walden, spoke of “marching to the beat of your own drummer.” I don’t know about the “marching” part, but I do enjoy being my own drummer. In fact, I am told that I play piano like a drummer!

I was finding that, once I was immersed in nature, she was slowing me down to a kinder, gentler frequency. Normally, I kind of zip around, darting to and fro with my gear. I tend to walk kind of fast; it not only keeps me in shape, but I get where I’m going quicker that way. I also obey good side-walk etiquette, but that’s another story! Once someone said they had seen me “charging” around town! That wouldn’t have been using plastic, either!

Now, instead of “fasting”, I was “slowing.”

As well, with the very strenuous and arduous weight-bearing climb, I was noticing my knee that had had surgery in 1981. I had a bicycle accident in Berkeley, and all three major ligaments in the knee were ripped in half. Very luckily, the surgical team who repaired it was the same team who did the professional football and basketball players in the Bay area, so I had the best possible job, and pretty much ever since, it’s been as good as new, with the exception of a slight loss of flexibility, and occasional soreness with extreme use.

This day’s climb may have been the most strenuous day I’ve ever had, in terms of the distance covered, the steepness of the climb, and the amount of weight I was carrying. Really, I can remember only once when I was more wasted than this after a day’s exercise, and this was the time that my friend and I rode about 70 miles in less than eight hours on our bicycles; part of this was an ascent up a small mountain in central North Carolina.

On this first day I walked about five miles with approximately 70 pounds of gear and climbed a couple thousand feet in elevation. It may not sound that hard, but I recommend that you try it!

Anyway, I knew that even when I noticed my knee hurting or swelling, that it corrected itself very quickly if I let it.

So, our decision to slow down and stay there for two nights was influenced not only by the magic of the enchanted forest but also by my knee’s need for rest. We still had several days of trekking ahead of us; we learned that the little topographic lines on our map did not necessarily correspond to the lay of the land, so we weren’t sure exactly what to expect. And I wanted to walk-with-good-knee.

The next morning we hiked up to the lake which is right at the base of the torres themselves; it must be frozen much of the year as on the map it’s called Ventisquero Torres. From here you see the view that you’ve probably seen in photos or post-cards of South America…the three tall pointy pinnacles of stone rising majestically into the sky.

It was quite mind-blowing actually to see them in person for the first time. To get there you have to climb up a huge boulder field for an hour or so; then all of a sudden you cross a ridge of stone and there they are! The weather was good; down this far south, it’s just like the “roaring 40’s” of Tasmania and Stewart Island off of New Zealand…or even Melbourne…you can get four seasons in one day, and it’s constantly changing. You can have a beautiful clear day then all of a sudden out of nowhere a huge storm can blow in.

I had lots of blue sky behind the torres when I first saw them, with some wispy clouds coming across. But over the next hour or two clouds came and it looked like it could rain or snow up higher.

The next day, almost everyone was gone, except for Cora and Jay, a lovely young couple from Sydney who we had met in Puerto Montt. I spent much of the day walking around in the lenga forest and communing with the spirit of the Andes. The leaves on the trees were turning bright orange as autumn set in; the lighting in the forest was quite nice. Lots of moss and lichens, too; I could imagine families of huemules lying on this very moss and listening to the soothing sounds of the stream.

“I love…the little huemules…”

Let me tell you about the huemules. Even though I have yet to encounter any, I have a very special relationship with them. Huemul is pronounced “WAY-mool” and huemules is pronounced “way-MOOL-eeze.” They are a kind of deer who are indigenous to the Andes. They often have black faces, which gives them a distinctive look. They seem to be about the same size as “isla tortugan” deer, but moderately stockier.

I first learned of them from a section in my Footprint™ which describes the current scenario: they have been driven to the brink of extinction by hunters, and now a major project is underway to restore their numbers.

I have not seen it written, but I feel that the huemules are a very sacred animal to the Mapuche (pronounced “ma-POOCH-uh”) and other indigenous peoples of Patagonia and the Andes. In the same way that I described ayahuasca (in its true curandero context) as being the “peyote of South America”, I will describe the huemules as the “bison of South America.”

The bison and buffalo (I’m not sure if they are exactly the same animal or not but close anyway) used to roam the Great Plains of “isla tortuga” numbering in the tens of millions. They were very sacred to the plains Indians (that’s another word that needs explaining…some say that good ole’ Chris Columbus thought he had arrived in India, hence the name; more likely is that early explorers recognized the true spiritual nature of the indigenous peoples they encountered on “isla tortuga” and called them “in dios”, meaning “in God.”), as they were the embodiment of Wakan Tanka, or the “Great Spirit”, and provided them with food and clothing. The native “Americans” hunted what they needed; the thundering of bison herds could be heard throughout the plains until the arrival of “wasichu” (a Lakota name for the white man, meaning “takes the fat”…and implying greed…as the fat was highly prized) with his steam trains and guns. Remember the scene from Dances with Wolves where he looks out and sees the thousands of bison carcasses that had been shot and skinned and left there to rot, and the dead deer decaying in his water-hole? He ended up breaking completely with wasichu and split with the survivors of the tribe up into the hills.

I haven’t seen any rotting huemul carcasses, but I have made contact with their spirit. It is my personal intuition that the huemules are or represent the spirit of the Andes. Ever since I first read about them, I have felt their presence as well as their cries for help. The whole time I was trekking in Torres del Paines, I could feel the huemules, even though I never saw any. Maybe they saw me, who knows? I know they are still there, they just stay way up beyond the hominids and don’t let themselves be seen, much in the same way that the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger certainly still exists, although it has officially been declared extinct since the 1930’s. For all we know (which isn’t much, is it?), dinosaurs could still exist up on some of the tepuis (remote isolated plateaus) in Venezuela.

The huemules are my friends and allies spiritually. All through Torres del Paines I could feel that they had recently been exactly where I was standing; when I lay down on moss at the Torres campground, I felt that huemules had lain on that very same moss. I even felt that I could easily become a huemul and live very happily there forever. Who knows, maybe I actually am a huemul dreaming that I am a human being?

I even came up with a little song that I would sing to myself as I was walking there:

“I love…the little huemules…down by the lenga tree.
I love the little huemules…as they were looking at me.
‘Little huemules, why are you so blue? Because
There’s not very many of you…left to see?’
I love the little huemules…down by the lenga tree…”

Dimitri Chestnut understands about the huemules, dontcha John?

As I was telling you before, John is a very cool dude, remaining almost unsurpassed in coolness among the people I’ve met on this trip; only Katie from Alaska was cooler, at least by three degrees Celsius. But the time John and I spent together inspired me to weave a customized personal mythos for him; in my mind he will always be John Dimitri-Ballsach Chestnut, M.D., J.D., Ph.D: molecular biologist, international corporate lawyer, and three-time gold medallist Olympic pole-vaulter.

See, he kind of looks like he could be any or all of these. Tall, intelligent, handsome, charming, brilliant. Bald. OK, heading in that direction! It all started with typical guys-on-the-trail talk…somehow our conversation had drifted onto the topic of Viagra™. I couldn’t see how anyone would need a synthetic pharmaceutical to make their dick hard when a beautiful hot young chick all wet and naked on top of them would hopefully evoke that response at the very least. I mean, maybe it’s middle-aged housewives who buy it, to slip to their tube-faced husbands.

Then we started talking about lingo I had learned since going travelling in New Zealand and Australia. I pointed out that the first new term I learned in Aotearoa was that what I had in America referred to as my “fanny pack” was in fact NOT a “fanny pack” in NZ…not on ME, anyway, as I, being a guy, had no “fanny.” See, in New Zealand, one’s “fanny” is like, you know, a chick’s box. So now, it’s a “bum bag.” Even though I wear it in front, over where my…well, you get it.

At any rate, at this point my mind came up with a new virtual product…Virgi-fan™ The “virgin-fanny” molecule is, of course, sort of an “organic Viagra™” consisting entirely of highly concentrated virgin pussy juice in a tiny capsule. See, it was a joke! Hahahaha! We thought it was funny, anyway.

So now you understand that only Dr. Dimitri Ballsach could have formulated such an innovative product, remarkably, in his spare time between training for pole vaulting and practicing international corporate law. So it went…and so it goes.

John…you rock bro!

We ended up taking nine days to do the “w.” We stayed twice as long as everyone else, and because of this I was able to truly and deeply connect with the land and the catch the vibe of where I was.

The second night at Torres John, Cora, Jay and I hung out with Diego, the park ranger who was in his last couple weeks of the season. We sat in his little hut and drank wine and chatted…it was very cool.

On the way down our bag of food was safe and sound in the tree…and yes I think it may well have been a lenga tree (a variety of nothofagus, the Gondwanaland-remnant species which also grows on the south island of New Zealand and in Tasmania). The juice was quickly assimilated and converted to glycogen by the ATP in my thirsty mitochondria, as we were now on what was the longest leg of the “w”, an 18 kilometer stretch which began with the down-grade from Torres, continued over a relatively level region, which reminded me immensely of the Wanaka area of the south island of New Zealand, with distant snow-capped mountains, lakes and lots of tussock-like brown grasses, then up and down over a couple of ridges, finally to descend a very rocky last kilometre to the refugio right on Lago Nordenskjold called Los Cuernos.

Arriving here at this coolest of refugios, I noticed that my knee was quite puffy, although it didn’t really hurt per se. John had offered to help me carry some stuff, so my load was lightened a little, and this helped. But again, both to let my knee heal and to enjoy the awesomeness of where we found ourselves, we stayed two nights here.

This place was way cool. Imagine a small ski lodge in the middle of nowhere (everywhere?), next to a lake, and nestled beneath towering beautiful mountains. High ceiling with many windows, heated by wood-stove; home-made bread and meals; wine; live music…by Walter on classical guitar. Hot showers! We slept in the tent but hung out in the refugio, writing, eating, just looking at the clouds and mountains, feeling where we were…the Patagonian Andes. I often found myself reflecting on exactly where I was, and the fact that I was really there…in what seemed like an impossible destination a year or two ago…and giving great thanks for this wonderful blessing.

The refugio was managed by a cool New Yorker named Heidi; Cora and Jay were there, and we met several cool people, including Jeff, who was just returning to “civilization” after over two years working in Antarctica. He had done a lot of photography of the aurora australis in his spare time on “the ice.”

Both Cora and Jeff shared their anti-inflammatory pills with me, to help with my knee swelling. This was swell of them!

Late one afternoon I went down by the lago to see if I could find any nice paintable rocks. There were millions of rocks, but they were all very angular. After a while of really feeling the presence of the mountains and the huemules, all of a sudden I looked down to see a really nice rock, maybe about four inches long, shaped very much like a flattened egg. It was perfect in shape and very smooth. I thanked the ancestors for this lovely rock; but the funny thing is that, no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find even one other rock remotely like that one. Every other rock was jagged and angular. It was almost as if this rock had suddenly materialized there…for me?

After two days here, we were off again, this time a relatively short trek to Campamento Italiano. Here again we found ourselves close to a river, within a lenga forest. We were just about the only people here; the park ranger had long since split.

Officially, camp fires are not allowed anywhere in Torres del Paines, with very good reason: when it’s not raining it can be both very dry and very windy at the same time. I think they actually had a serious fire in the park not that long ago.

But, since it was actually raining while we were there, plus the fact that we were essentially alone and there was plenty of fire-wood laying around, John and I discussed the matter and decided, after a great deal of deliberation, that under these special conditions, a small fire would be ok.

It was great, finally, to be able to sit around the proverbial camp-fire! The fire provided a center of attention, a place to sit and be warm outside the tent; we could stay up later and hang out. But just as we seemed in perfect harmony with the land, we suddenly found ourselves experiencing the…

Night of the Living Vermin!

It all began one dark lonely night…wait, that was The Invaders! It all began with this little sound that woke me up. I can’t think of anything that it sounded like. It was like a tiny little rubbing sound, like someone scratching something with their finger-nail really quickly. I figured it must be rats, as there had been mention of their presence in some of the camp-grounds. When I heard the sound, I would knock the tent where the sound was, and it would stop. This happened a couple more times before I fell asleep.

The next morning when John removed some cookies from the pouch inside the tent, he saw that a rat had eaten a huge hole in the tent, and ate half a pack of Triton™ cookies as well! “Bastards!” I thought, as I gazed on the gaping hole in my brand new thousand dollar tent!!!!!!

And there were two or three much smaller holes, apparently where the motherfu…I mean rats had been gnawing when I knocked them away. “Cock-suckers!” See, I wouldn’t normally even have food in my tent. When I was hitch-hiking around “isla tortuga” or New Zealand or Australia, almost never would I have food of any kind in my tent.

Usual camping technique is that you hang your food in a bag from the limb of a tree. This is usually good for keeping it away from foxes, racoons and even bears. Only here in Torres del Paines, some sources had said it was better to keep your food in your tent.

Fuck that. We had been attacked by vermin…and in the night! And they had to be pretty big for rats…I could hear good-sized rocks moving as they scampered around the tent! John, being the true Dimitri, had a little duct tape with him, so I fixed the holes; then we put our food in a bag and suspended it from a tree limb.

The next day we were doing a day hike up the valley, but I was reluctant to leave the tent where it could be attacked by rats while we were gone. Finally, we figured it would be ok, so off we went. Part of me asked “are we being punished for building a fire?” But we had done it safely, and only after serious deliberation.

This day was amazing, and I felt in even deeper communion with the spirit of Torres del Paines than ever before. It was kind of rainy, but not really cold. This trek was following the glacial valley, up above a river, in and out of very magical forests and over boulders and streams. Off to the left, across the valley, rose the huge del Frances glacier; now and then the silence would be shattered by the explosive sound of an avalanche. Wicked!

John was way ahead of me; I was going really slow, as I was stopping like every five minutes to take photos and film something. This was one of those very magical misty days where you take the polarizing filter off; you really notice the subtle colors, the muted shades, the autumn reds and oranges. I had to wipe the tiny rain drops off of the wide-angle lens on my video camera. After having been in the park for five or six days now, I was really feeling the spirit…so mystical. I would stop for ten or twenty minutes at every little stream, at every nice look-out, in every grove of trees.

The ancient Druids had a name for a sacred grove of trees: “nemeton.” Over the years I have found myself in several places that felt like this, especially Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in extreme western North Carolina, and in an old-growth forest on the outskirts of Tralee, Ireland. Here I felt that every little grove was, indeed, a nemeton. This whole park felt like a huge sacred place.

Finally, I met John…he was coming back down after going almost all the way to Campamento Britanico. Between the constantly shifting clouds he had gotten a glimpse of the “throne” of peaks and outcroppings. I was moving in a different time-frame; I continued up but didn’t make it as far as he did before I had to turn back so as to make camp by dark. By now I was feeling very deeply inspired, in a real and tangible way, by the presence I felt all around me…the presence of something or someone who knew me, who knew I was there, who loved me. Mother Nature herself? The “great spirit” of the Andes?

We built a second, smaller fire this night, and were joined by a hiker from the U.K. No vermins attacked this night, either, and the next morning we were off to Pehoe (pronounced “PAY-way”, like “Amway), which was a relatively short trek across fairly level terrain.

As we approached we could see the huge lightly-colored hotel standing out against the landscape as if it were some kind of gigantic mold or fungus growing on the land. A box fungus, maybe? It made me think of The Shining somehow! I could not possibly imagine why anyone would a) build such a blasphemous structure in such an awe-inspiring place and b) why they would paint it a ghastly shade of off-white.

The vibe there matched the degree of visual blight it created; a very unwelcoming and sterile interior, and a sign asking you to leave your back-pack outside if you were not staying there.

As this is a nexus where the hiking trail arrives from Italiano and heads up to Lago Grey, as well as where the boat docks that you take to return towards Puerto Natales, you can’t avoid at least passing through. But it sucked in a big way. We camped out, to the sound of the generators. We were able to cook, in a kitchen filled with windows…and no heat source. There was an elaborate bathroom complex…with a shower that was only a trickle of water only slightly warmer than the tap water. I was able to check my email for the first time in days…at a cost of around $8usd per hour!

That night I had a disturbing dream in which I saw a very evil looking man, whose face was not clear, but who resembled the manager of the hotel there, who said something to me like “So Jesus is your mama?” then he turned into a huge snake which seemed to be trying to swallow me feet-first. This dream made me feel weird for several hours, until the pure and powerful energy of the land cleared me out! This dream seemed somehow related to Marcelo and the ayahuasca thing, even though I had yet to return there to find out how weird it all actually was…looking back, this dream was almost prophetic in that respect.

And, much to my dismay, on this night we were also attacked once again by the rats. I thought I heard them scampering around after we lay down; I thought I heard what sounded like one jump up onto the tent, but I didn’t worry too much as all the food was in the kitchen. Next morning when I was breaking down the tent I saw two holes each about two cm in diameter chewed into the very top of the tent…not even close to where any food had ever been. I was going “what the fuck are these rats doing, eating holes in a tent where there was no food.” I remembered a conversation I had had with Bill Paynter, a kiwi guy who gave me a ride from Belfast to Picton last September. He worked for a pest-control company and shared a lot of information with me, for example, that as much as 20% of the world’s human food supply was contaminated by mice each year, and that mice actually eat the coating off of some electrical wires, which can create serious fire hazards.

So were these rats actually eating the tent material itself? The holes weren’t rips or tears, the material was fully gone. Were these rabid rats, or bearers of some kind of weird culinary plague? Were they a recent mutation, born from generations of feeding on back-packer food, refuse and gear? Did they escape from a genetic engineering lab at Los Alamos and swim to here? Were they friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger? I didn’t want to think about it.

What I did come up with, however, was the idea of having specially-trained owls, or buhos (“BOO-ohs”), who you could rent. You know, like how people have falcons that come and sit on their gloved hand? The “rent-a-buhos” would come with you as you walk, maybe perching on your shoulder or travelling in a special little house with a canopy; then when darkness falls, they would sit on a little perch on top of your tent and wait for the fat juicy vermin to come out…then they have a good feed, and hang out until morning. When your trip is done, you return them to their owners, along with the stove and rain-gear you rented. A job well done.

Word would spread quickly in the faunal grapevine; soon, tent camping in Torres del Paines would once again be safe and free from nocturnal attack, and the buhos would be lining up from all over Patagonia, to help mankind and get free-and-easy dinners! And this is how Karin and Pablo at Patagonia Adventure can raise the money they need to buy their back-packer building…from launching “rent-a-buho”…and they can convert their café into a nice little kitchen and then everyone could be happy!!!!!!!!!! And I might come and stay there again! Remember…you heard it here first!

OK…the next morning there at glorious Pehoe Resort the weather looked quite, shall we say…shit? Cold, rainy, dark…so shit that both John and I were questioning whether or not to do the last leg of the “w” up to Lago Grey refugio and the Grey glacier. We had already been there for eight days, far longer than we originally planned. We had plenty of supplies; in fact, part of the excessive weight I began with was because this dude named Horatio, who we met on the Navimag, said he wanted to come with us, so I bought food for three people instead of two. He never came with us, which was great as far as I was concerned…so we still had plenty of “tucker.” We both had good rain gear, too; but neither of us relished the thought of tramping in the cold rain for several hours.

The day was very young, however, and I said I’d give it a couple hours. I even told John that if I saw a rainbow in the next couple hours, it would be my sign to go.

By Jove, within an hour or so the clouds were breaking up and the sun was coming out…and I saw a little rainbow!!!!!!! Goddess was smiling on us, as she had in fact been doing all along…and is in fact doing so now, as I sit here in the Ecole hostel in Pucon…so we set off on what was to be by far the most awesome day of the entire Torres del Paines experience!

My knee was doing great, and the weight of our back-packs was gradually diminishing in direct proportion to what we ate. The several kilos of my camera weight remained constant, as one would expect…this is a given. As usual, John raced off ahead, and I had the trail essentially to myself.

It was becoming quite noticeable to me that the longer I was in the park, the more deeply I was feeling the connection with the spirit of the Andes, of Patagonia, of Torres del Paines.

I don’t think I mentioned that “Torres del Paines” means “towers of blue”, “paines” being a Mapuche word for “blue.” Wherever you go in the park, looming overhead are great jagged mountain peaks, guardians of this sacred land. I was developing a personal relationship with them. It was very beautiful.

The trail from Pehoe to Lago Grey refugio is not too hard and takes you across quite a variety of terrain. After maybe three or four kilometres, you come out on top of a ridge where you look down onto an awesome glacial lake. On this day it was somewhat windy up there, so really cool wave action was blowing across the lake. In my mind it looked very sub-Antarctic. I think it actually would be; but it looks like this anyway! Very cold looking!

You continue along the trail, gradually climbing onto a higher ridge, from which you can now look down and see the larger lake fed by the huge Grey glacier; at this point you can also begin to see chunks of ice floating, miniature ice-bergs that have broken off from the glacier. Then you find yourself at the top of a pass, where there is a neat little tarn (a Scottish word, I believe, for a small pond) in the middle of the track; from here you have a great unobstructed view and can see the gigantic glacier in the distance. It’s REALLY big, too.

Here, too, was the only really high winds I encountered in all of Torres del Paines, which is actually reknowned for its constant high winds! They say April has the most stable weather conditions of the year, and this was April…how lucky was I? VERY lucky indeed!

The wind here was probably well over 100 kilometers per hour, coming straight at me. My lips flapped back, like you always see from the guys who rode the rocket sleds back in the day! I had to really lean into it to keep from being blown back. It was raining a little, too; but the patterns the wind was making on the water was so cool looking that I had to get some video footage, so I managed to turn and shelter the lens from the rain a bit…it was challenging but it looks wicked!

From here it was mostly down-hill all the way to the refugio. And over the next hour or so is when I was having a fully mystical experience…the highest spiritual point of my nine-day trek here…one that I will never ever forget, and one whose magic and inexpressible beauty will always be with me.

I was walking along and all of a sudden I look up and notice that the sky has cleared, and that the peaks of the really high mountains above me all had fresh snow. It was beautiful beyond belief. I truly began to feel as if someone was quite literally smiling on me…someone who knew me and was showing me her beauty. I must have taken a whole roll of pictures of these snow-capped peaks.

Then as I went further, descending into a forest of some of the largest lenga trees I had seen, I found myself in a little glade, where the trail opened into a little area sheltered by several very large trees. I was drawn to stop here. I cannot begin to express the magic and spiritual beauty I felt here. I looked up through the trees, and could see the magnificent snow-capped peaks, backed by a deep blue sky, framed perfectly by the brilliant orange and red leaves of the autumnal lengas. I took some photos, and some video; I was transfixed by what I was experiencing.

It’s hard to explain, but I felt that I now knew that these mountains were indeed “ancestral grandmothers”, true spiritual beings who were aware of me; I also felt that where I was standing was indeed a nemeton, a sacred grove where Mapuche or other indigenous ancestors had stood looking at the same peaks, or perhaps camped here, or maybe were even buried here. I felt a transcendent peace and a sense of eternity, of eternal love, that I don’t know that I ever felt before.

And I felt the presence of my own mother, Louise, who was killed in an automobile accident two years ago. I have felt the presence of both my mom and dad since they “came forth by day”, but not like this. A very very profound sense of peace, of togetherness with a true family.

This was as if I were feeling the presence of, and my unity with, a spiritual family of sorts…my own mother, the spirits of the indigenous people from here, the ancient “grandmothers” of Torres del Paines, and Mother Earth herself. This IS what I was feeling. I can feel it now as I write this many weeks later.

I know that this is heaven; it is here and now, if you can open yourself and allow it to express itself within you. It’s an inner dimension that is as real as the world around us, maybe even more real in ways that the mortal mind cannot comprehend.

Recently a friend of mine was telling me that some people say that Torres del Paines is a portal area, a region that is an opening into another plane, another dimension. From my experience there, I would say that this is definitely the case. Theoretically, one can access other dimensions from “wherever” you are, given the nature of the trans-dimensional experience: all dimensions interpenetrate holographically, beyond space and time as we perceive them. In a natural area, however, that is itself a portal or vortex, in the language of the “new age” metaphysical crowd (the term “vortex” was first used by psychic researcher Page Bryant to describe the energy centers in places like Sedona, Arizona…a vortex is usually associated with a specific place and/or geophysical feature of the landscape…some might call them “power spots”), rather than accessing the “alternity” from within yourself, you find that you are already there, and it’s all around you! How cool…

I spent maybe half an hour in this magical place. I felt like I could just stay there forever. I did stay there forever. And yes, I felt that huemules had lain there, as well. A small stream flowed nearby. I truly couldn’t believe either the visual beauty or the spiritual warmth I was feeling; it was epiphanous, transcendental, mystical, and a blessing. Tears of joy, peace and gratitude flowed from my eyes.

Truly, I was “walking in beauty.”

Finally, I figured I had better get on down the trail, but as it turned out, the refugio was only another fifteen minutes away. I was basically there.

This place was located right on the shore of Lago Grey. Like the refugio at Los Cuernos, it was kind of a small ski-lodge kind of place. It was nestled within a large grove of smaller lenga trees, this time with more of a sandy ground rather than moss and leaves. I felt that this whole area must have been at least regularly inhabited by the indigenous peoples, if it was not in fact a sacred area. Maybe the indigenous people here were so tuned in that every area was sacred to them.

When I entered the building, the people there were huddled around a computer screen, and some trance music was playing. It was quite a juxtaposition, to be here, seemingly far out and away from civilization, and here were people doing precisely the stuff that I always try to escape from!

But it was cool. There were only three guests there…John, an Argentinian guy and myself. It was funny…the rooms where the beds were located upstairs had walls, of course; but I’ve learned here in South America not necessarily to expect anything to be what you’d expect. The rooms had no ceiling, only the trusses that supported the roof. So there was no sense of privacy, no acoustic isolation from the people sleeping in the next room.

This is the essence of my problem with the “backpacker” experience: 1) that almost all of them I’ve ever visited (and I studiously avoid them if possible) seem to have been designed to maximize profit and to minimize the work put into it as well as the quality of staying there, and 2) the last thing I want to deal with is having to listen to some ass-hole snoring when I’m paying money for a place to sleep.

Truly, how hard would it have been for these guys to bring in a few more sheets of plywood and put up ceilings in this place? I’ve done plenty of carpentry…I could have done this job alone in an afternoon.

Anyway, I was only awakened once by moderate snoring, so it didn’t keep me from sleeping. The next morning we were out of there bright and early, as we had to be back at Pehoe to catch the daily boat out of there at 12:30pm.

The return trip seemed to go very quickly; I stopped again at the mystical little spot, burned some sage and offered my prayers to the Great Spirit. I had done this many times throughout my visit to Torres del Paines. I felt sad to be leaving; a big part of me longed to stay there. In fact, a part of me is there now, and will always be.

Before I knew it I found myself back at the little tarn at the top of the pass. I turned and said “adios” to the massive glacier, and headed for Pehoe.

Back at the trail-head, we went to the park ranger’s cabin to retrieve some gear we had left with him; I had left the tent as we knew we’d be staying at the refugio. Carlos Barria is a very cool dude, and he has a very cool job, to live in this little cabin and watch out for this part of the park, right on the shore of the lake. He told us that National Geographic had been there recently filming a documentary on the pumas there. I had not seen any, but they probably saw me; I saw one on a post-card, and it looked exactly like a huge but friendly kitty-cat!

I took a few more photos of the ever-changing views and light on the mountains, and the katamaran we were catching came into view across the lake. The thirty-minute trip back to the park entrance was quite spectacular, as it took us out and around on the lake, and afforded completely new perspectives visually.

We then took a little shuttle back to Puerto Natales. Once again, we drove around yet another part of the park that gave even more new views of this mind-blowingly beautiful place. Many times I wanted to stop and take photos but the driver seemed really in a hurry as he sped along the gravel road. There must have been a game on the tube that night! I looked back at the torres as they receded in the distance, sad to be leaving yet filled with immense good energy and their spirit…and knowing that someday I will return to be with my ancient grandmothers!


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